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Why are these women radically changing their diets?

By Kerry McKittrick

In recent years, people have started thinking more about what they eat. We attempt to find out what it’s like following a strict nutrition regime

It’s not that long ago that vegetarian options on restaurant menus in Northern Ireland would have been quite restricted. If pasta bake, stuffed peppers or nut roast weren’t your thing, you were limited to what you could eat.

Worse still for a vegan, who could order nothing more than a side salad, served up with a blank expression.

However, in the last few years things have changed for the better and people are paying more and more attention to what they put into their bodies.

Sugar, saturated fat, caffeine, alcohol and even meat and dairy are constantly being denounced as bad for us — if it isn’t organic, then it just isn’t worth it.

The market is flooded with cookbooks telling us how to eat fat-free, carbohydrate-free and gluten-free food produce, while celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Natalie Portman, Mike Tyson and Joaquin Phoenix are all advocates of a vegan lifestyle.

But what is it really like to cut out complete food groups from your diet?

Is it just a passing fad or a way of life?

We talk to four local women about their specific food plans and what difference their diet has made to them?

The Raw Vegan

Barbara Faibish (63) lives in Strangford and works as a health coach.

She says: "Eating animals is disgusting so I’ve been a vegetarian for about 35 years. I’m against the appalling treatment of animals.

I became raw vegan seven years ago after reading an article in the vegetarian magazine about a man who cured himself of arthritis with raw food. He had founded a raw food school and I signed myself up on the next course.

I lost weight, my health improved enormously and all of my aches and pains disappeared. I became very flexible and my skin cleared up, all within a matter of months. Before I started on raw food, I had arthritis in my hands, knees, hips and feet and that went away, too.

The food is so delicious on a raw food diet that when you go back to eating what other people eat, it seems so disappointing. It happens sometimes when I’m socialising or travelling — if you go to people’s houses, then you have to eat the food you’re given. I don’t want to be socially isolated by my diet.

Raw veganism is uncooked food, although it can be warmed sometimes. You can also add heat with chilli, garlic and ginger. You can use a hydrator to make crisps and crackers and foods such as raw pizza base or granola. Dehydrating food at a very low heat keeps the nutritional integrity and flavour. I grow a lot in my garden, so when I’m making meals, it involves picking fresh, organic food just before eating it.

People always wonder how I make food so tasty, but they’re used to processed food that has a long shelf-life and the flavour has been removed from it. If you’re going to buy anything in a packet, it should have one ingredient and that should be prefaced with the word organic.

It’s not a religion, you don’t have to sign a pledge. I have one friend who raises goats, so I will eat her goats’ cheese and another friend who raises ducks, so I eat those eggs. I do notice the difference when I eat processed food, but when I get home, I get the juicer out and start feeling better.

I drink alcohol, but wine can have up to 200 additives in it, so I only buy organic.

I go for gin because it’s very pure and I drink it with water or a fermented drink called kombucha tea. I prefer to make my own fresh herb tea than drink black tea or coffee.”

For more information on Barbara or the raw food movement, go to

The Vegetarian

Charlene Hegarty (29) is a music publisher and lives in Belfast.

She says: All of the standard vegetarian things I eat. I don’t eat a lot of dairy because I don’t think it’s very good for me, but I do eat eggs.

It all started with a 30-day veg pledge challenge by PETA a few years ago. I was in a supermarket one day buying an uncooked chicken and I noticed there was a list of ingredients on it. When I saw that, I decided it was time to control what I was eating. I did the pledge and it continued on from there.

My mum was terrified that I would lose weight and become ill. I actually put on half a stone during the challenge because I was eating better food. I had much more energy and didn’t get colds or the flu.

That was 10 years ago and I’m still eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, pulses and seeds. I like potatoes in every form and pasta. I eat the same curries that others eat, but replace the meat with chickpeas instead.

I also make a really nice vegetarian gravy and veggie Yorkshire puddings, so I can have a great Sunday dinner.

There is a bit of a stigma about being a vegetarian out in the countryside, such as Maghera, where I’m from. It’s much more common to be vegetarian in the city and the food available for us eating out has changed drastically in the last five years. Restaurants aren’t just offering a vegetarian option now, they’re offering a vegetarian menu.”

The Vegan

Julie Preston (43) runs Yoga Belfast. She lives in Belfast with her husband, Victor.

She says: I became a vegetarian 32 years ago — we were shown a video in home economics in school on how animals are killed and that was the end of eating meat for me. I know others saw the same thing and stopped eating meat, too. I decided I couldn’t be part of that.

I think it drove my mum mad. It was in the era where being a vegetarian wasn’t really done in Northern Ireland and my mum was a very traditional cook. During my teenage years, I just ate what the family ate without the meat. I wasn’t getting much protein and as I was going through puberty and growing at the time, I became ill. I had all the symptoms of what looked like glandular fever, but the tests were always negative.

I actually guessed that I wasn’t eating a balanced diet.

I really started to pay attention to my food when I went travelling and got to taste amazing food around Europe. That inspired me to learn to cook properly and to learn about nutrition.

I tried veganism on and off for a good few years — there was a point in my mid-twenties where I realised that even dairy could upset my stomach. I would stop eating it and then start again after a while — it was just too hard to stop.

Four years ago, I watched an expose on dairy farming and that’s when I became vegan. I’m a good cook and I know lots of alternative recipes, so that helps. Home Restaurant is great and there are a couple of cafes in Belfast that are wonderful. I find that you’re not treated differently any more — when you eat out as a vegan, you can be treated like you’re being a pain — but now people are becoming interested in it.

My diet is very, very pure. I follow yoga principles of diet, which focuses on avoiding stimulants. I don’t drink tea or coffee because of the caffeine and I don’t drink alcohol. The only supplement I take is B12 because that gets left out of my diet.

Most people who have met me don’t believe I’m the age that I am, my nails and hair grow like crazy. I had a facial last year and the therapist thought I was in my late twenties.

I think food can affect your mental state — if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, then that will have a positive effect on your mind. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed in the last nine years, that I’m much more mentally and emotionally balanced.”

The Clean Eater

Hollie Edgar (31) is a group fitness instructor and lives in Belfast with her husband, Tim, and their sons, Toby (6) and Jonah (19 months).

She says: "From the age of five until my 20s, I grew up taking part in competitive athletics, with my dad as my coach. I’ve always been very aware of what I put into my body.

I eat clean, which means everything I eat is natural and unprocessed. I eat meat and dairy, although because of the nutritional value of those foods, I tend to keep them to a minimum. When I do eat these, I try to make sure they’re organic and locally sourced. I’ve been doing this since I had my two children and we all follow this diet. It’s essentially all about cooking from scratch and baking without refined sugar. Instead, I use ingredients with natural sugars, such as dates, which, blended into a liquid, make a great substitute. An increasing number of people are realising now that sugar is more of a problem than fat, and that the type of fat we eat it is important. A tub of really good quality organic butter is good for us, but spreads and margarines aren’t because they’re processed. I was brought up by a dad who was ahead of this kind of thinking. When I was sick, I was given garlic sandwiches, or if I had a tummy bug, I got spoonfuls of apple cider vinegar.

We would have beetroot eating competitions because it’s a blood cleanser. It was a quirk of my upbringing, but now it’s all regarded as normal.

When I was pregnant with my first son, I ended up with a condition called obstetric cholestasis — it affects the liver and can send bile into your system and there’s a higher risk of stillbirth because of it. I knew that if I had it the first time I was pregnant, then I had a much higher chance of getting it the next time. I visited the nutritionist, Jane McClenaghan, and chatted about having a clean diet for an efficient liver. From that point on I became aware of controlling what happens to me in terms of my diet. I was lucky enough to have an amazing second pregnancy with Jonah — no complications — so I continued eating clean.

I don’t get stomach pains or feel sick after eating — I find eating greasy, fast food can make me nauseous. I have much more energy and my mood is always better and less anxious if I’m eating clean.

Because I have two kids and a business, I don’t have a lot of time. I use a lot of spices and herbs to create meals. I also eat pre-prepared quinoa, buckwheat and other grains.

People used to say that healthy foods weren’t available to them, but you can now find all sorts of things in the couscous aisle of the supermarket.

You don’t need to be disciplined to eat clean, you just need to read and educate yourself. I’m very particular about what I eat, even if I step out of the clean zone.

I wouldn’t go near fast food restaurants, particularly when you research what actually goes into that food.

Instead, I would go for a really nice Indian.

I love to eat out, but I tend to go to places that I know use really good, fresh produce — Home and the Soul Food Cafe are a couple here in Belfast.

People are getting excited about being fitter and what goes into their bodies these days — not everyone is living off microwave meals anymore. We’re appreciating the benefits of living well and not as daunted by it as we used to be.”

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